Networked communication – theory and practice

In the last few weeks I read three books on related topics – the theory and practice of networks for social change. Deanna Zandt’s Share This, Beth Kanter and Allison Fine’s Networked Nonprofit, and Manuel Castells Communication Power. Share This and Networked Nonprofit are practical books for people engaged in nonprofit and advocacy work; Communication Power is a work of sociology by an academic personally interested in political activism and social change.

The thought behind reading the books together was that Castells would provide a bigger picture framework to put the more practical books into context. He does, but not in any definitive way, perhaps because the story is very much in progress. Share This and Networked Nonprofit are both differently excellent for people newer to the use of social media for social change; for more current and advanced advice, follow the authors online.

Share This and Networked Nonprofit are written primarily for people who are experienced at advocacy and nonprofit work, but new to social media. This focus supports the authors’ work, helping established organizations and professionals orient themselves toward new tools and new ways of working.

Share This has more personal advice for people with a background in advocacy and organizing. The book coaches readers through the personal experience of sharing stories and building relationships through social media. It helps people think about the decisions about how much to share, how to negotiate fuzzy personal and professional boundaries, to connect across social boundaries in the interest of social change, to manage attention and use critical thinking to handle the flood of social network messages, to overcome some of the common fears of using the internet and social media.

Deanna Zandt’s outlook on social media derives from older traditions of feminist consciousness raising (“the personal is political”) and personal storytelling from the Chicago school of community organizing. She sees personal connection as the foundation for social transformation: “through sharing with others, we ultimately build the trust and empathy that are the building blocks of change.” This viewpoint is a deliberate choice – people can use social media with many sorts of intentions; advocating empathy in the interest of social justice is one choice, which I like better than some other alternatives.

The Networked Nonprofit focuses less on the personal and emotional side of social media, and more on the organizational and institutional aspects. The book advocates for the use of social media to enable structural improvements in the way nonprofits work. The nonprofit sector has grown tremendously in recent years, in the number of organizations, employees, and budgets. The conventional structure of a nonprofit organization is a standalone entity which competes with others for funding, whose professional staff are isolated from donors, volunteers, and constituents. Fine and Kanter contend that this structure sets the organizations up for underachievement and sets staff up for exhaustion and burnout.

Instead of seeing themselves as standalone organizations, nonprofits should see themselves as part of a network. They could use the internet and social media tools to do a better job of engaging the support, skills, and interests of constituents, and could coordinate with complementary organizations to have a greater impact without taking on more overload. Some of the organizations that do this most effectively are ones created in the last decade with the network as part of their fabric. For example, Surfriders is a loose organization of surfers dedicated to protecting the seashore; local chapters have complete independence to create their own events and communications, with support tools from the core organization. The book is full of other case studies in which more traditional organizations are evolving to be more networked.

One of the interesting trends cited in the book was of a new generation of “network weaving” free agents who use network resources to initiate social action and advocacy, but who are not permanently affiliated with any particular nonprofit organization. This was exciting to me, since it felt like a description of how I’ve worked for years, without a name for the practice. I’ve done organizing and advocacy in tech policy, environment, open government, and other issues; I connect people and organizations, and leverage the resources and brand of organizations in a way that furthers the mission of the organizations, without taking on a permanent affiliation. It’s felt like a secret art, and it’s cool to be able to put a description and a name to the practice.

I read Communications Power by sociologist Manuel Castells at the same time, in the expectation that it would provide a broader context for the practical trends described by Zandt and Fine/Kanter. It does. I was also looking to the book to provide an analysis of the relationship between networks, politics, and social action, complementary to the culturally-focused analysis that Kazys Varnelis summarizes. It definitely does.

Castells traces the broader trends of the rise of communications networks, and their the role in the formation of identity and social connections, the dissemination of ideas, the structure of organizations, and the allocation of power. Castells’ first section provides a survey of sociological literature on the subjects (a handy bibliography for those of us interested laypeople without degrees in sociology). The second section takes a whirlwind tour of trends toward media consolidation and the rise of the internet in recent decades. For those who have followed these topics in mainstream and trade press, this is a skimmable rehash; perhaps there are sociologists and activists less familiar with the material who would find these sections more interesting. The third section draws interesting connections from neuropsychology to explain the relationship between emotion and reason in the formation of public opinion. They are not opposites; rather emotion and cognitive dissonance bring people’s attention to facts. The messengers – celebrities in mass media, or peers in social networks, play an important role in bringing people’s attention to the message.

The book picks up the pace in the second half, where Castells uses the background set up in the first half to explore a series of case studies with original analysis. Programming Networks of Mind and Power provides a case study of the Bush Administration’s political communication during the Iraq War, manipulating the mass media to build public support for invasion based on false information. Reprogramming Networks looks at four examples where networks are being used by people to organize and influence events; the rise of the environmental movement around climate change, the anti-globalization movement, “smart mob” protests in Spain that changed the outcome of an election, and the Obama presidential campaign.

Castell’s big picture sociology is more general and more complex than the practitioners’ books. Castells traces the rise of networked communication in the context of an interlocking matrix of state power, financial/commercial power, and mass media. New aspects of identity, new means of transmitting ideas, and new forms of coordination coexist and interact with existing forms. A number of the practical insights in ShareThis and NetNon are connected to larger patterns – the online expression of identity that Zandt advocates is connected to changes that Castells observes and validates with original and cited research; the evolution toward networked organizations is also connected to larger trends Castells describes.

ShareThis and “NetNon” are short and focused, while Communication Power is long and sprawling and requires substantial skimming to get through. I don’t begrudge Zandt, Fine and Kanter their tight focus on new trends. Those authors wouldn’t argue that social media alone is enough – activists and nonprofit managers need to consider a broader mix of media and methods to build a constituency in today’s world. Zandt has great coaching about personal adaptation to social media, and NetNon has a lot of insight about organizational structure and tactics, but neither book is the place to go for insight into big-picture strategy about social change in the networked era. Castells’ case study about the global advances of the environmental movement, with many networked organizations, substantial use of internet organizing, and celebrities communicating in mass media, provides interesting food for thought for nonprofits and advocates interested in joining forces for large-scale change (and its examples of organizing innovation dovetail with the mode described in Networked Notprofit). Though, at the moment, with the Obama administration’s failure to pass climate legislation in its moment of historical opportunity, there are as many questions as answers about the role and limitation of networked organizing.

Something that is missing in all of the books is a connection between network and structure that I suspect may be a key to movement success in the long term. A truly ad hoc, networked organization can have dramatic impact in the short term – flash mobs organized rapidly to overthrow governments and change election results in the Phillipines, Korea, and Spain. But can a purely ad hoc networked organization succeed at larger-scale, long-term change? Even in the age of easy networked communication, organizations are serve as an entity to handle money, and as a vehicle for storing and transmitting culture and practices to a constantly changing constituent base. The larger open source/open content projects, such as Apache and Wikipedia, have created foundations to provide an organizational base for networked peer production activities. The gap between the techniques of networked self-organization and the needs of long-term organizing is a gap I’ve observed before, in works such as Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody – there need to be methods to link networked action in the moment to the longer-lasting coordination it takes to make big social changes – movements to abolish slavery, to gain civil rights for African-Americans, to gain the vote for women, took persistence over many years- a flash mob wouldn’t have done the trick.

Perhaps this is a weakness of the sociological form, but Castells’ analysis of the structures and forces in situations neglects the effects of circumstances and specific agency. If the 2000 presidential election in Florida had gone slightly differently, if Gore had campaigned a little better that season, then several of the major stories in Communications Power would likely have played out very differently – the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings would have been different, the developments in the movement to combat climate change would have been different. Castells provides a rich, if familiar analysis of the Bush Administration’s success at disinformation and media manipulation during the Iraq War. But was the passivity and gullibility of the US media really baked into the structure of our society, or could leading media organizations have taken a more risky and aggressive path at reporting the truth earlier – that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and wasn’t linked to Al Qaeda.

The main conclusion of Castells’ book is simple and useful – to understand power, look at the communication networks, who controls them, what they communicate through the network and how. Beyond the strong main argument, Christian Fuchs of the University of Saltzburg critiques the Castells’ argument as social theory in several ways. Fuchs observes that Castell’s notion of power overemphasizes coercive power; and that Castells’ use of networking metaphors drawn from computer networks (programming, switching) may obfuscate the different properties of a social network made of sentient people; both observations I also made when reading the book. Fuchs argues that Castells’ use of “autonomy” is theoretically vague; I don’t have enough social theory background to understand that critique. Castells analyzes a number of mechanisms of persuasion used in mass media communication: framing, agenda-setting, priming, and indexing. Fuchs asks whether the same techniques would be used by insurgents doing peer organizing (based on observing the Netroots I’d say yes); in addition, I would ask about what different sorts of persuasion may come into play with peer media.

The two practical books have different limitations. Both books are written primarily for readers who are relatively new to social media; for people those who are already engaged in using online tools as a component of organizing and advocacy, these books leave one hungry for more. At Netroots Nation, I talked to a GenY friend who has been a pioneer in online political campaigns, and is now in charge of online advocacy for a progressive organization. He was somewhat baffled by the Networked Nonprofit’s emphasis on breaking down silos – still a new and needed idea for many, though it was old hat to him.

For people who are already deeply engaged in using the internet and social media for advocacy and social change, there’s a need for more advanced material: on using new media and older media together effectively, on combining the strength of the network and the structure of the organization, on the challenges of building diverse personal connections and coalitions when online networks are part of the practice; on the complex relationships between fact and emotion, messenger and message in advocacy and organizing. The authors’ ongoing work online continues to provide more in-depth resources for post-introductory networked nonprofit and advocacy. If you have other favorite sources, please let me know in comments!

All of the books are politically oriented, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. Share This is assertively progressive; Networked Nonprofit is less overtly liberal, and the anecdotes and case studies cover a broader range of the political spectrum, but the language includes assumptions and code from the left side of the political spectrum, for example the authors describe themselves as “experts in social media for social good.” Manuel Castells opens the book with stories of his youthful opposition to the Franco dictatorship, and the way he tells and frames the stories, including the Lakoffian way he uses the concept of framing, derives from a leftish perspective. These books assume ideals of social justice, environmental health, cultural tolerance; and the ideas that people can and should organize to pursue these goals.

There are other books that might be written, looking at the use of social media across the political spectrum, or from another part of the political spectrum; from the perspective of commerce and people’s identification with the stuff we buy, from the perspective of culture, identity, and creativity; from the perspectives of people’s everyday lives, gossiping and flirting and sharing jokes and showing off. Those books will be worth reading also, but these books aren’t those books. Christopher Lasch argues that a having a point of view helps people to understand and apply information. From this perspective, I see the social/political orientation as constraint and a strength, not a weakness.

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